New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Irving Penn: Archeology
Irving Penn
R. Wayne Parsons
Irving Penn, “Bird and Fish Bones, New York”, 1980

Was Irving Penn one of the most important photographers of the last half century? This is not a trick question. Nor is it a rhetorical one.

Penn was a blazingly original artist. Who else would place portrait subjects into a sharply-angled corner with no way out other than to confront the camera? Or do a whole series of nudes of a corpulent woman in which we never so much as glimpse a head, much less a face, and in which much of the rest of the body is bleached to nothingness? Or (my favorite) base an extensive series of iconic images on some of the most inconsequential detritus our affluent society has ever produced: cigarette butts he retrieved from the gutter?

The current exhibition at Pace MacGill is taken from a series of black-and-white still-lifes he completed in 1979-80. Titled Archaeology, the work consists of thirty-two images, of which twenty-one are on display. They are based on mostly unconventional subject matter: bones, metal polyhedrons left over from unidentified industrial uses, and an old manual sewing machine, supplemented by more time-honored props such as an earthenware pitcher, two human skulls, an antique bottle or two, and a small collection of other such objects. Clearly Mr. Penn assigned himself the task of excavating the unobtrusive beauty than can be found in the discarded remnants and fragments of our consuming society. Not surprisingly, he mostly succeeded. They are interesting photographs, beautifully printed using the demanding and time-consuming platinum-palladium process. (This mostly obsolete process is noted for much more subtle tonal gradations than can be obtained by the more standard silver-based technology.) They will appeal most to aficionados who value the fine print tradition of black and white photography.

But there are problems. The compositions are not striking as a rule, and are also more repetitive than one would hope to see - especially the ones based on the metal polyhedrons. We also tire of seeing all the objects in a composition and, indeed, in the entire series, confined more or less to a single plane, usually parallel to that of the film (a technical constraint needed to bring all the objects in front of the camera into focus). The series would be more visually interesting had the requirement of maximal focus been relaxed from time to time, with the result of varying degrees of sharpness within a given image.

My final complaint is that the series does not cohere as well as it should. Set amongst the austere photos of bones and metal pieces, two images using cherries, broken crockery, and in one case spilled cream are simply out of place.

 by unidentified photographer.
Irving Penn, Construction with Nut, New York, 1980

But there is an explanation for these lapses. My short conversation with the show’s curator suggested that what really captured Penn’s attention was the platinum-palladium printing process; she used the word “obsessed” more than once. Thus it seems that Penn was as much or more intent on exploring the potential of platinum-palladium imagery as on making a series of photographs of found objects. This also accounts for the anomalous situation that editions of the images vary from a few as six to as many as sixty-nine; presumably he printed an image until he either tired of it or felt he had nothing more to add, at which point he went on to the next negative.

Back to my initial question: Is Penn one of the greats? If Archaeology were all we had of Irving Penn, my answer would be “No.” But, fortunately, we have a great deal more than Archaeology and the answer, of course, is a resounding “Yes.”

If you don’t know Penn’s work you shouldn’t miss this show. You will also enjoy the exhibition if you are already familiar with Penn, as we get a much better understanding of an artist when we know the lesser creations as well as the masterpieces.

Irving Penn

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